For too long, the law made criminals out of women coerced into having sex for money and left alone those who profit from such exploitation. Women whose background made them vulnerable to being manipulated into the sex trade were victimized twice: once by sex traffickers, then again by the legal system.

A growing number of states, thankfully, are working to address this injustice. Maine has taken major steps toward this goal, most recently by enacting a law that spares a person from facing prostitution charges if she or he is determined to be a victim of sex trafficking.

L.D. 1730 also increases victim compensation fees — paid by convicted traffickers — and mandates that the funds be used for prevention and intervention efforts. This multi-pronged approach recognizes that trafficking victims have faced long-term trauma and deserve long-term support.

Not all prostitution is sex trafficking. Prosecutors and victim advocates say there are people who choose to have sex for money. Women involved in sex trafficking, on the other hand, are the targets of predators who allow them little say in life decisions. Those most at risk of victimization often come from troubled upbringings and have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse and addiction.

“With prostitution, a woman is making that decision and is charge of herself,” according to Kennebec District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, while “with sex trafficking, we’re talking about targeting and recruiting vulnerable women and manipulating them to engage in sex.”

A humane and effective anti-sex trafficking strategy must take into account the ongoing needs of a woman trying to get out of the sex trade. If she has a criminal record, it will make it harder for her to get a job or secure affordable housing. So the new law should be applauded for focusing on prosecuting traffickers, not victims. Women targeted for trafficking can now use that as a defense against a charge of prosecution. What’s more, women previously convicted of prostitution can be pardoned if it can be shown that they were forced or coerced into selling sex.

L.D. 1730 also calls for dedicating higher victim compensation fees to prevention, education and rehabilitation. But legislators and policymakers must consider what they’ll do if this revenue isn’t enough to help ensure that trafficking victims get such supports as housing, therapy and medical care. Victims have to have these services in order to recover and move on.

Maine has made a commitment to cracking down on perpetrators of sexual trafficking. It should be prepared to stand by the victims of this despicable practice for as long a time as they need to heal.

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